Late July in Moka was too hot. I went to the bank and withdrew a ridiculously large amount of money and headed off with my bike in search of some nicer weather. You can take a bike on the train as long as you bag it, and theoretically pay an extra 240 yen for a special ticket that half of the stations don't know how to sell you. Bagging a bike is very easy. You just turn it upside-down, flip off the front brake cable, remove the wheel and drop the bag over it. Then you turn it over again, zip up the bag and bow to the large crowd that has gathered to watch. I also have a little pair of white gloves, partly to keep my hands clean, but mainly for effect. At your destination, just turn in upside down again, unzip the bag, replace the wheel, flip it back over, bow to the crowd, ride off, crash into someone, apologise, get up, apologise again, reconnect the brake cable and ride away not feeling as cool as you would have liked. Whilst travelling on the train, a bagged bike forms the shape of the Chinese Character for "Hey, look, it's a foreigner with a large object in a bag. You'd better talk to him and give him stuff."
After an unexpected delay in Utsunomiya while the immigration officers spent their lunch hour looking for my visa, I headed north to Koriyama, then over the mountains to Niigata. I got talking to some people on the train, and my carefully formulated "Plastic, paper money and pants" luggage-reduction strategy was swiftly shattered. (If anyone wants some nuts, I've got about 3 kilos left.) I spent the evening in Niigata talking to someone who trying to prove that Koizumi should lead the LDP. He was trying to prove this mathematically, according to various calculations involving the ages of various national leaders. Mostly he would say a word and write down some initials and numbers on a little piece of paper, and I would unsuccessfully attempt to persuade him to use some verbs.
Niigata-ken is beautiful and inhabited primarily by mad people. As I rode northwards the coast became increasingly rugged. To my left, a rainbow hung like a halo exactly above Sado Island. Huge pointed cliffs protruded from the edges of mountains, great limbs sticking out of the water. Enormous, symmetrical rocks spring up on either side, like the knees of a huge stone woman making love to the road. Long, dark tunnels echoed with the sound of trucks, the sound bouncing back and forth until its direction becomes impossible to fix. On a bike, you can't tell if there's anything behind you until your own shadow appears in its headlights. This is probably a metaphor for something.
Also it was a nice place to swim.
I stopped for the night in a suspiciously sleepy village along the coast. It was the kind of place where nobody makes a big deal about the fact that you're a foreigner; They're too shocked that you've come from somewhere outside Niigata-ken. I was the only guest in the minshuku where I stayed, although the landlady's husband was there. It was run by an old lady, who prepared an amazingly tasty dinner made from local seafood. She was very chatty, but her memory wasn't so good, so she kept asking me the same questions again and again. After a while I started to experiment, with answers of the "Why did you come to Japan?" "I wanted to meet Godzilla." variety, but she responded to all answers with an identical and increasingly annoying "Ah, soooooooooooooooo!", then asked one of her previous questions again. That night I threw up my delicious seafood dinner, and so did her husband. The woman vehemently denied that there could have been anything wrong with the seafood. Eating when I was tired, obviously, she explained. Trying to escape, I went into the station to try to find out about trains. I was stared at. I asked about the train times. I was stared at some more. I gave up. I got back on my bike and started peddling north out of the crazy world of Niigata-ken, and didn't stop peddling until I was safely over the county line.
That evening I took the train to Aomori. All the hotels were full. A stood by the phone with a list of the hotels I hadn't already tried, faffing. I got talking to a man in a three-piece suit and geta. His name was Sakamoto. He was supposed to meet a friend who was coming in from Chile, but the friend had been delayed. As a joke he offered to lend me a tent. I took it seriously. Then he offered to let me stay at his house. I accepted. We went to meet some friends of his. They were in the fish processing business. Everyone had South-American connections. Several of them were half-Argentinian. I congratulated them on their country's football team. They congratulated me on my country's navy. We got drunk. Occasionally someone would read out a figure for trout catches and everyone would laugh. Afterwards Sakamoto took me to a hostess bar, where I sang Karaoke while he unsuccessfully attempted to persuade the hostess to sleep with him for free. The next morning I had an exceedingly hung-over game of soccer with a small child. Then we exchanged addresses. Me and the small child both sat there trying to get our kanji right, although I had the advantage that my mum wasn't there bagging on me when I got the stroke order wrong. Sakamoto has now moved to South America to start a new life in the prawn processing industry.
The next day I went to Hakodate, on the southern tip of Hokkaido. This involved travelling through the longest rail tunnel in the world on a special train with pictures of Doraemon all over it and Doraemon himself in carriage number five. Hakodate is laid out like a European city, with broad, tree-lined avenues and bizarre one-way systems. The buildings in the old town look like Wild West film sets. But I searched in vain for untaxed whiskey or decent patisserie. It does have a cable-car up to a mountain which is quite good, but otherwise I didn't think much of it. Mind you I spent much of the evening cycling around looking for somewhere to eat entirely free of either seafood or alcohol. These were very specific and temporary dislikes caused by the previous two nights' vomit/ near-vomit experiences. So if you don't feel like throwing up for either of those two reasons you might quite like the place.
The best thing about Hakodate is the five-cornered fort thingamy. This large, moated structure, intended as a symbol of reconciliation between the Japanese, British and American nations, was formed in 1864 by the landing of space aliens. In the centre, large bronze cannon commemorate the enduring capacity of our political leaders to construct large phallic objects that compensate for their own sexual insecurities. The park survives to this day, promoting peace, harmony and stretching exercises. Or something like that. I admit I had to guess a few of the kanji.
The next day I rode to Onuma Lake for a bit of serenity, and saw an Australian one-man band called Bruce playing "Country Road" and a Brazilian doing BMX stunts.
After that I went to Shikotsu-ko, which was beautiful. The lake stands at the top of a large mountain, but can be reached via a gleaming new cycle path that somehow cuts a level gradient up the edge of the volcano. A peaceful, verdant cycle path is separated from the road and flanked on both sides by trees, and runs in a straight line for twenty identical kilometres. After about an hour of pedaling I started to wonder if I was actually getting anywhere at all, or if I had just fallen into another dimension controlled by some stern Eco-Fascist Escher. But by evening I had reached the youth hostel at the edge of the lake, where I met a Nova teacher who made me feel happy about being on the JET programme, as Nova teachers generally do. We biked around the lake to a high, narrow canyon carpeted with moss and sightseers. Unlike most Japanese tourist spots I've been to, the area around the lake was spotlessly clean. I suspect this may have owed something to the large signs reading "Don't drop litter or you'll be eaten by bears".
I went to Sapporo, didn't like it much and went back to the south coast of Hokkaido. The spa town of Noboribetsu. I wandered around the edge of the active volcano, where steam gushes from the rocks and streams of sulphurous water stain the rocks green, red and brown like the detritus from some massive failed chemistry experiment. In pools scattered around the crater one-yen coins lay green and tarnished, the detritus from a number of small successful chemistry experiments. Later in the onsen I met a Japanese guy from Wimbledon. We drunk beer, tasted some of the third-best ramen in the country (well, that's what it said) and bought "Beware of the bear" underpants, then he headed off back to Ashikaga, which is where his grandmother lives.
That night I got the ferry from Tomakomai down to Hachinohe in Aomori-ken. If you want to find Hachinohe on a map, just look around for Ichi or Ni nohe and keep counting upwards until you get to number eight. You don't have to bag your bike to take it on a ferry, but they had to have anxious conversations over the walkie-talkie to decide when I should board the ferry. I wasn't a car or a foot passenger, so, erm... Eventually I was classified as a container. And rode into the cargo bay at the same time as the HGVs. It was like wandering in on a secret ceremony. Hidden from the public gaze, they were making dazzling three-point turns like some strange dance, performing spectacular pirouettes at terrifying speeds.
The next day I biked up to Osore-zan (Mount Terror), in the north-east tip of Aomori. There, in the crater of a volcano, lies the gateway to Hell. During festivals, blind shaman women called itako gather to communicate with the dead. The rest of the time the dead have to fend for themselves, and are said to be responsible for the piles of stones scattered all around the crater's north-east edge. The smell of sulphur was overpowering, much stronger than at Noboribetsu. A thick fog had descended over the lake, leaving it muffled and silent except for the cries of the black crows that hopped across the little white bonnets people had laid out on the rocks in memory of their relatives. Windmills protruded from the rocks in clusters, fluttering eerily in the breeze. Each crumbling mound and each sulphurous pool had been meticulously marked with signs like "Lake of Blood". Inside the temple, rows of dolls - elegant Japanese carvings, plastic Barbie dolls still in their boxes - stood in white wedding dresses, set up in glass cases with photographs of their intended grooms, men who had died too young to marry.
I spent the night in the temple accomodation. The next morning a twenty-kilometre ride down to the station in the pouring rain did nothing to remove the odour of Hell from my clothes, and that day I spread the smell of brimstone all the way from there to Moka.